Three overnight lighting sensations that weren’t

As I aimed lights at paintings by Alderman-turned-artist David Hinchliffe, he offered me this sage advice: ‘The world is full of good ideas, just not a lot of good money.’ At the time I thought he was referring to the likelihood of my ever being paid. Happily, my misgivings were misplaced.

My own experience with inventions – from an interactive weatherproof and vandalproof bollard for memorials, son et lumieres and fountains that we first sold in 1992 (and is still being sold almost a quarter of a century later, despite qualifying as the world’s most expensive switch) to a patented yet obvious-in-hindsight device for distributing DALI – has made me realise that it’s not just money you need for a good idea to succeed, you also need time. And lots of it.

Take the humble light bulb, aka ‘globe’, aka GLS (General Lighting Service) lamp, aka bubble. It surely ranks among the best ideas ever: even the concept of a good idea is depicted as a light bulb appearing over your head. And why not? Before light bulbs converted electricity to light, people were making light by burning stuff. With actual flames. And they did it everywhere: homes, streets; they even did it in factories and mines where explosive and toxic gases lurked and the early warning system – from the 1890s to the 1980s – consisted of a canary either chirping happily (‘No gas, all good’) or suddenly falling off its perch (‘Gas! You are about to die! STOP POKING MY CORPSE AND RUN, STUPID!’).

So, compared to lights that could blow you and your colleagues apart and set your neighbourhood on fire, the considerably less evil electric light bulb more than qualified as a good idea. Or more correctly, a series of good ideas that only took a hundred years or so to culminate into a truly useful thing.

Beginning with Humphry Davy’s ‘light bulb moment’ in 1800 when he invented the electric arc light, it was developed into an incandescent bulb under Edison and Swan in the late 1870s (with a lifespan matched only by short-lived moths) and finally gained popularity from the 1880s on.

It was upgraded to have a tungsten filament in 1910 and by then its longevity wasn’t quite so appalling – it could finally outlast the poor moths and other phototropic insects that now found light bulbs so attractive that they all died even faster in desperate attempts to give that brilliant thing a hug. 

And then there is the laser. My first laser was actually John Gunton’s five Watt argon gas Spectraphysics model 164 (Gunton and my ex-partner Rod Salmon founded Dynalite, which has since been acquired by Philips). The 164 laser cost tens of thousands of dollars to buy, required 45 PSI of water to keep cool and regularly ate its own innards, all to make a singularly bright green beam that shone for miles and could be manipulated with high gain mirrors to produce join-the-dots graphics. That, and it could burn your eye out in a tenth of a second. How cool is that?

Even cooler is how a laser works – put a mirror at one end of an optical cavity and a half mirror at the other, add light and do some other techy stuff involving an energy supply and a gain medium to spice things up, and the photons that started off by chaotically bouncing between the mirrors suddenly break through the half mirror, in perfect lockstep: a conga line of uniquely coherent light.

The invention of the laser had its foundations in a theory by Albert Einstein way back in 1917. Famously, the first working laser (which didn’t happen until 1960, the year I was born) became associated with the phrase ‘a solution in search of a problem’ because nobody at the time had the faintest idea how to use a laser in any practical application.

For those who don’t know, the word ‘laser’ is an acronym for ‘Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation’ and, despite languishing for decades waiting to find a purpose, the laser has since gone on to be used in myriad everyday applications from slicing through steel to barcode scanners, laser printers and surgical, scientific and industrial tools. Lasers can correct your eyesight, remove your tattoos, and still dazzle you in light shows.

And because a laser is so ridiculously efficient, researchers are now looking at converting a laser’s coherent and narrow spectrum light into continuous spectra white light for lighting applications, by shining lasers through phosphor discs or other media. If they succeed in any practical sense (and I am not at all certain that they will) then lasers could even usurp LEDs as light sources and, interestingly for installers and maintenance people, the laser luminaires of the future would come with radiation hazard warnings.

And finally there is the invention of LEDs way back in 1927, a time that pre-dates lasers, halogen lamps and most other light sources. Like lasers, LEDs (light emitting diodes) also had limited uses when first invented: they were relegated to single colour red or green and were used in low brightness applications like indicators and clock digits.

The potential for LEDs to be used for general lighting would take an even longer gestation period than lasers: 67 years from their original invention to the invention of blue LEDs by Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura (Nobel Prize in Physics 2014) that, together with the invention of the YAG phosphor, finally made white LED light sources a reality.

So there you have it: light bulbs, laser and LEDs; overnight lighting sensations that were truly revolutionary on a global scale.

Except of course that by ‘overnight’ I actually mean fifty to a hundred years. But who’s counting?



The third image down is of a laser light on an Audi prototype race car, photographed by Oskar Schuler for Shutterstock.  Shuji Nakamura recently told Lux Review that we can expect to see laser diodes appear in lighting products over the next five years.